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In A Comfort Zone With his needs addressed, a relaxed and mature Daunte Culpepper got the Vikings off to a fast start

A wobbly duck, Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator Scott
Linehan would point out after Sunday's game, was Daunte
Culpepper's finest pass of the day. On third-and-10 with 8:14
remaining in the first quarter at Lambeau Field, Culpepper
dropped back and looked for streaking wideout Randy Moss, who had
drawn double coverage along the right sideline. But instead of
whipping the ball to Moss, Culpepper fluttered it harmlessly
out-of-bounds. In the coaches' booth, Linehan was elated.

"Last year he would have tried to force that pass to Randy, and
bad things would have happened," Linehan said, following
Minnesota's 30-25 win over the Green Bay Packers. "Instead,
Daunte said, 'O.K., punter, O.K., defense, it's up to you now.'
That's the biggest difference in Daunte. He's mature enough as a
quarterback to know what he can't do."

If that's true, the potential for what the Vikings can do in the
milquetoast NFC North is substantial. While Minnesota was going
6-10 last season, Culpepper felt hemmed in by rookie coach Mike
Tice's Randy Ratio--an ill-advised stab at getting the moody
All-Pro Moss more touches per game--and suffered behind a
patchwork line that wilted under pressure. Culpepper threw 23
interceptions and fumbled 23 times (losing nine). That was the
latest in a series of steps backward since his second season, in
2000, when he threw for 3,937 yards, 33 touchdowns and was the
NFC's Pro Bowl starter. "I made too many mistakes last year, and
I wasn't mature enough to let them go," Culpepper, 26, says.
"Now, I'll make a more conscious effort to make smart plays that
keep us in games. Bad things will happen, but I have to stay on
an even keel."

Tice felt that Culpepper's regression was largely due to his
being told too many things by too many coaches. To streamline the
process, Tice gave Linehan sole responsibility for counseling
Culpepper. "Last year was tough on him emotionally," Linehan
says. "He needs the play-caller to be his coach. He needs to know
why a play is being called. He needs to have one voice. It puts
him at ease."

Culpepper was made to feel even more comfortable by a better
offensive line that included free-agent signee Mike Rosenthal and
a full training camp by second-year left tackle Bryant McKinnie,
who missed the first eight games in 2002 in a contract dispute.
In May, Culpepper also signed a 10-year, $102 million contract.
"That told me I was their guy," he says of the deal. "Now I can
let it all hang out."

On Sunday the 6'4", 264-pound Culpepper kept finding ways to move
the chains, completing 15 of 30 passes for 195 yards and three
touchdowns and, most important, no picks. Culpepper also ran nine
times for 50 yards but fumbled the ball away on two of those
runs. Working without the Randy Ratio, the Culpepper-to-Moss
combination was virtually unstoppable. Moss had nine catches for
150 yards, including a 13-yard touchdown on Culpepper's laser
pass over two defenders that put Minnesota up 27-3 in the middle
of the third quarter.

As the final seconds ticked away, an observer on the Vikings'
sideline flashed a pained smile when asked about Culpepper. "He's
one of the league's best," said team owner Red McCombs. "I'm just
sorry we have to pay him that much money." By season's end
McCombs's $102 million man could be a bargain.

--Josh Elliott

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER (2) HOG HEAVEN Behind a bigger, better line, Culpepper threw three touchdown passes without a pick against Green Bay.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER (2) SQUEEZE PLAY Of Culpepper's 15 completions on Sunday, nine went to Moss, including this 13-yard touchdown.

"I made too many mistakes last year," says Culpepper, "and I
wasn't mature enough to let them go."